CALGARY — While she’s being remembered as an award-winning journalist with a warm smile and a bright future, the death of Michelle Lang while on her dream assignment to Afghanistan is a nightmare for her friends, family and colleagues.
Just a month shy of her 35th birthday, Lang was seconded from her post as a health reporter for the Calgary Herald to spent six weeks for Canwest News Service embedded with Canadian troops in Kandahar.
She arrived in the country just two weeks ago. On Wednesday, she made her first trip beyond the safe confines of Kandahar Airfield to go outside the wire — a rite of passage for every journalist who reports from Afghanistan.
Travelling in the back of an armoured military vehicle, she and four Canadian soldiers were killed by an improvised explosive device.
“She was one of those journalists who always wanted to get to the bottom of every story so this was an important trip for her,” said her Herald colleague, Colette Derworiz.
“She was ready to go and do everything she needed to do to tell the proper story there. She didn’t just want to sit on the base. She wanted to go and tell the real story.”
But while she admires the journalist, it’s her friend that Derworiz will miss.
“She was just one of those people in the newsroom that when she walked in the room everybody lit up,” she said softly. “She was just one of those people that everybody loved. There’s a hole in the newsroom for sure.”
Among the loved ones Lang leaves behind is her fiance, Michael Louie. The two were scheduled to be married at the Calgary Winter Club on July 3.
“She was trying to get as much as she could done before she left because she was worried when she got back she wouldn’t have time to get the place booked and stuff like that,” said Derworiz.
“She was so excited.”
The sad news was broken to staff at a meeting in the Calgary Herald newsroom Wednesday afternoon.
“There were lots of tears,” said an emotional Lorne Motley, the newspaper’s editor-in-chief. “It’s been a very, very difficult day here on a personal and professional level.
“She was the bright light in the room and when something like this happens, it’s especially difficult for her friends. They adored her.
“For her to die the way she did, it’s hard to accept.”
Motley said Lang went to the war zone hoping to tell uplifting stories about the troops.
She did that in a blog just before Christmas, when she wrote of how the country’s winter rains had turned the dusty military base into a giant mud pit.
“Life here, though, has been made considerably brighter by Christmas decorations,” she brightly remarked. “Many soldiers have decorated their sleep tents with Christmas lights. One bike near the media work tent has a wreath attached to its handlebars.”
Her stories certainly were noticed. On a condolences page set up by the Calgary Herald on Wednesday, Deb Kel of Newport, N.S., wrote of how they touched her and other average Canadians.
“Over the past few weeks, Canada watched as greetings home rolled in from her soldiers,” wrote Kel.
“How many of these brave souls were touched by your smiles on their way to cheer their loved ones here at home? Thank you for the smiles you brought to many homes, the facts you presented to all, and above all…thank you for caring enough to go and be with our troops and report to the world.”
Lang first joined the Herald in the business department and worked her way up through the paper.
“She became a health reporter and a damned good one at that,” said Motley. “This year she won the National Newspaper Award for beat reporting. She was at the top of her craft and really starting to earn her stripes in our industry.”
Lang’s award-winning coverage of the Alberta health system and its financial woes often targeted the province’s health minister but Ron Liepert paid tribute to her in a statement released by his office.
“We are all very saddened to hear this tragic news,” said Liepert. “Michelle covered health issues with professionalism, accuracy and thoroughness. She was tenacious in her quest to inform Albertans, and for her diligence she was very well respected.”
Lang was born in Vancouver and worked at the Prince George Free Press and the Regina Leader-Post before moving to Calgary.
Her death prompted an almost immediate tribute page called “R.I.P Michelle Lang-Journalist” that sprung up on Facebook.
“I hope people can appreciate her dogged determination if not the insanity of this war,” wrote Michael R. Wood. “The front line is more inhumane than I can imagine. I know this solely through the works and efforts of people like Michelle, whom I thank and will remember.”
Journalists know there are risks when they go out on dangerous assignments, said Scott Anderson, editor-in-chief of Canwest News Service.
“Journalists take risks. We always knew it was a possibility but you never expected it and we certainly never expected it this close to home,” he said.
“She was just an ambitious, bright young woman who wanted to do great things.”